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Why Are Americans So Deferential?
By Peter Foster
February 26th, 2014
It is an orthodoxy of American politics – and indeed America more generally – that the "land of the free" doesn't do dynasties and class-based deference, when everyone knows perfectly well that they do.
I've been pondering this piece of cognitive dissonance this week after Jeb Bush – the former Florida governor and younger brother of Dubya – hinted that he's seriously considering a tilt at the White House in 2016.
Of course that immediately sparked the old debate over the "dynasty" question, since if Jeb won the nomination and faced off against Hillary Clinton, the list of White House occupants since 1988 would read Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama and then … Bush or Clinton.
As a Brit living in America, I often hear American friends making assumptions about how deferential and class-bound Britain is, particularly in comparison with America with its eponymous dream and meritocratic ideals.
Perhaps this anachronistic view of Britain is down to watching too much Downton Abbey – Hillary Clinton, rather disturbingly, is a big fan – but it never ceases to surprise me how accepting of authority Americans are, and how lacking in self-awareness they are about the culture of deference in their own country.
This is not just exhibited in the obvious power of American political families to captivate the voting public in a way that is unthinkable in Britain – people are already speculating, only half-jokingly, about Chelsea Clinton's 2032 bid for the White House – but extends to almost all office and holders of official rank.
It starts at the top with the President of the United States who attracts a level of bowing and scraping that a British Prime Minister could only dream of, and continues right on down to the lowliest beat-cop or tinpot airport security or immigration official who bullies and berates the citizenry in a way that would cause a riot in Britain.
Perhaps the people are cowed by the knowledge that any insolence is liable to be met with a drawn firearm or Taser-zap from which there will almost certainly be no legal recourse, but the sheer compliableness of the US public surprises many of us foreigners.
The US media is also reflects that culture of deference. American pundits shudder at the mention of the British "tabloid press" – an appellation it extends to pretty much all forms of British journalism – but that is partly because the US media seems to have become institutionally incapable of appreciating the value of judicious disrespect.
The British media is indeed often thuggish and cruel, but it does have an anti-establishment, insurgent quality that seems largely to have gone missing in America.
Anybody have any suggestions for how to investigate quantitatively how these perhaps disparate phenomenon vary over time or from one country to another?
I have a vague sense that JFK's presidency had something to do with a lot of this: his James Bond looks, his brothers, his glamorous consort, his nearly blowing up the world in 1962, and his martyrdom, they all combined together to make his uncool successors, such as Johnson and Nixon, unsatisfactory. From this point of view, what happened in The Sixties after 11/22/63 was less a revolt against authority than a demand for more awesome authorities.